TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Raising the white flag in an espionage case that once carried the death penalty, the military cut a deal letting a Muslim interpreter accused of spying at the high-security base at Guantanamo Bay plead guilty Wednesday to lesser charges and probably avoid additional jail time.
The plea agreement for Senior Airman Ahmad I. Al Halabi, 25, marks the third time this year the military has dropped serious security charges against servicemen at top-secret Camp Delta, which houses about 600 prisoners held in the war on terrorism.
Al Halabi, charged after his July 2003 arrest with 30 counts that included attempted espionage and aiding the enemy, faces at most nine years in prison. Sources say he will almost certainly walk free after a sentencing hearing that continues today.
A plea deal between prosecutors and the airman's defense team has been sealed until the conclusion of the hearing, but sources say it calls for Al Halabi -- who spent 295 days in a military brig after his arrest -- to not serve any more time behind bars. In exchange, Al Halabi has agreed to a debriefing by military investigators as they continue to probe allegations of a spy ring at Camp Delta.
Defense attorney Don Rehkopf said there won't be much to find, arguing that "there never was a spy ring" at the base on Cuba's southeastern shore.
Prosecutors said they remained convinced that security problems probably existed at the base. But settling with Al Halabi "was in the best interests of the United States," said Lt. Col. Bryan Wheeler, the Air Force lead attorney on the case.
Wheeler said he still believed that "there were people operating together in a way that is inconsistent with the mission" at Guantanamo Bay.
During a tense three-hour hearing, Al Halabi pleaded guilty to four counts, including disobeying orders, lying and misconduct. He acknowledged that he had disobeyed orders by snapping photographs of a guard tower and a building at Camp Delta, then lied about the photos when interrogated after his arrest. He also admitted to breaking regulations by improperly storing a half a dozen military documents in an unsecured locker at his quarters and then mailing the documents a few days before he left Camp Delta to return to Travis.
Initially, military officials declared that more than 200 documents in Al Halabi's possession were classified, but a Defense Department review released a week before the start of trial concluded that just one could be considered a national secret.
Al Halabi acknowledged in court that he retained possession of unauthorized documents that included a copy of cellblock information for prisoners at the base, a map of the installation and information for a mission he undertook to Afghanistan that included the routes of flights to and from Guantanamo. The Defense Department review last month determined that only the Afghan mission orders could be considered classified.
Rehkopf said Al Halabi believed that those mission orders weren't secret because the mission was completed. The airman, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Syria, stuffed that document and several other military papers along with a few personal items into a cardboard box and mailed it to himself at Travis.
"It was a souvenir to prove he had been to Afghanistan," Rehkopf said. "It was his war trophy."
But prosecutors took exception to that characterization.
"This information had a 'secret' stamp on it. How is that a war trophy?" asked Wheeler, the lead prosecutor. "This type of material falling into the wrong hands could result in a hit at Guantanamo."
Al Halabi was one of three Muslim men arrested last year on suspicion of playing a role in a reputed spy ring at Camp Delta.
Military officials in March dropped prosecution of Army Capt. James Y. Yee, a Muslim military chaplain who was jailed for more than two months.
Civilian interpreter Ahmed Fathy Mehalba has been jailed for nearly a year.
Charges also were dropped last week in the case against Army Reserve Col. Jackie Farr, who was accused of trying to take classified material off base.
Military investigators arrested Al Halabi at a Florida air base after the short flight from Guantanamo Bay, where he had just completed an eight-month stint as an interpreter. Al Halabi had a cache of classified documents, mostly letters he had translated to or from prisoners, plus a ticket to Syria and $1,500 cash.